Friday, 29 April 2016

The curious incident of the dog on a ladder in the night… Married Love (1923), with John Sweeney, Kings College, BSFFS 2016

Our Lilian
I can forgive this film anything as it stars Lilian Hall-Davis, simply one of the best actresses of the silent era and someone who plays emotions across her face as easily as most of us breathe.

But... there is a dog that climbs a fireman’s ladder up to a first floor bedroom blaze and returns with a child on its back and possibly several kittens. There’s also obscure advice about keeping the roses pruned as the well-tended ones tend to be better quality children… or something like that.

Married Love –released as the more carefully-worded, Maisie's Marriage - was based on birth control pioneer Marie Stopes’s book of the same name and it’s undeniably unfair to take issue with whatever metaphor was required to sneak the message through. The film was controversial with the BBFC removing a number of references to the subject matter – up to 14 minutes’ worth - and slapping an A certificate on for good measure: adults only – dogs maybe too.

The film is exceptionally good-natured and maintains a healthy balance between the drama and the coy parental advice. Alexander Butler directs well if a little unevenly.

A garden of children at The Burrows' house
We begin with the highly-populous Burrows family who have packed out their modest apartment with ten children and possibly more. Mrs Burrows (Sydney Fairbrother) spends her time between pregnancies cooking, ironing and being run ragged and has the added bonus of Mr Burrows (Sam Livesey) being effectively an eleventh child.

Their eldest son, an incredibly youthful Roger Livesey, has no clue where he’s going and is shaping up to be a chip of the old block (actor also being the step-son of his screen dad) but the one ray of hope is daughter Maisie (Lilian Hall-Davis) who works as a waitress and has the motivational drive provided by wanting to avoid being anything like her parents.

A grown-up Mr Livesey showing more of his Westminster School poise...
One day Maisie meets a friendly fireman, Dick Reading (Rex Davis), who stalks her back to the café where he is able to dampen the ardour of a couple of sexual harassers. Dick (sorry, I’m going to have to call him Richard) is self-assured, in most things, loves his mum and, indeed, his dog showing Maisie their photos with pride. But as their relationship forms Maisie becomes increasingly afraid of the consequences of settling down: she’s not keen on the multiple births and lifetime of drudgery marriage seems to entail.

She argues this point with Richard and her eavesdropping Pa intervenes after hearing how little she seems to value him as a role model. Maisie’s no push-over and she bites back only to storm out into an uncertain night.

Sam Livesey who married his sister-in-law after the death of her husband, and Roger's father, Joseph...
She walks to Piccadilly – a lovely sequence at the Circus all bathed in neon then as now – where she meets a couple of good-time girls who tell her that a good-time is just what she needs as well: as there’s nothing like “a jazz” to cheer you up. They head off to a nightclub for some of this jazz and Maisie encounters another sad example of masculinity: top hat and tails bemoaning the fact that he “…shouldn’t be here, it’s the wife’s fault… can’t mate with an icicle.”

Maisie refuses to engage and a fight breaks out which sees the gent proving to actually be a bit of a gent as he defends her, inspired by the unmistakable look of innocence in her eyes. Despondent, Maisie wanders until the morning and, finding herself on a bridge, climbs up and shockingly jumps into the Thames.

Marie Stopes in February 1923
Hall-Davis looks to go the full-Gish in this sequence and is certainly wild-drowning in some of the shots. A passing couple spot Maisie and he dives in whilst she gets the Police. She’s rescued but will have to face trail – suicide is illegal whether you live or die.

Maisie gets no sympathy from a misogynistic magistrate and cries out “I’m being punished for something I never knew… “; something she was never told. The couple try to intervene but she is sentenced to two months in the Second Division. On release she’s greeted by the woman, Mrs. Sterling (Gladys Harvey) who offers her a job as their maid and drives her back to upper middle class security.

Mr Sterling (Bert Darley) is a successful writer – is there any other kind? – and they have three darling little darlings, hair madly curled by the intense satisfaction of a childhood spent in endless play and wonder. No scrapping under their Ma’s ironing board or getting forgotten in the pub by their pre-occupied Pa… for them.

Marie Stopes' birth control clinic caravan
They awaken Maisie’s maternal instincts "that longing that lies in every woman’s heart…” but she’s surely thrown her chances with Richard hasn’t she? Cut to the inventive fireman showing his mother (Mary Brough) his new fire ladder – it’s been accepted and he’s going to do well… is there any way he and Maisie can ever be re-united.

And that’s how we come to find that dog climbing those steps and rescuing that child… but you really need to see this for yourself.

John Sweeney accompanied with his customary sure-fingered precision and maintained an elegant dignity even when those roses sprouted a child’s face and the canine clambering threatened to scupper the drama.

See! Emotions, playing across her face...
Lilian is lovely throughout and acts rings round cast and script… she never hits a wrong note even in a film as wayward in tone as this one. Hers should have been a long and glorious career and yet it wasn’t to be -  time for a retrospective and can someone please screen Boadicea?

The film was screened as part of the opening day of the annual British Silent Film Festival Symposium at Kings College London… of which more later…

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